A Letter from Cairo: Room 34 at the Egyptian Museum

by Gretchen McCullough

Three years ago, I became obsessed with Room 34 at the Egyptian Museum. It was the most inglorious room in that glorious place, crammed with glass cases of Tutankamen’s gold artifacts: throne chairs, recliners, chariots, mummy cases and masks. You could wander through poorly-lit halls of mummy cases, as common as rows of spaghetti sauce in an American grocery store. And for those with an appetite for the colossal, Pharaonic statues had been plopped into the middle of one hall, as is. The Animal Mummy Room, a strange out-of-the-way cove, had the feel of an amateur taxidermist’s shop: stuffed crocodiles, cats, some stray birds and a few melted bulls. Since the rooms were numbered but not in numerical order, I usually got lost in the maze and missed Room 34.  The modern-day Egyptians have strategically placed the gold, the colossal, the mummies, bait for the hunter-travelers, who have little time for wandering.

The Egyptian lady at the Gift Shop cannot find Room 34 mentioned in any of the guidebooks: they feature only the sleek, fashionable objects.  However, a few objects from Room 34 have been wedged in: 1) a paddle-doll with thread hair, and 2)a cosmetic spoon, in the shape of a fish and 3) an ivory castanet with a pair of outstretched arms.

“Not really what I’m looking for. Room 34 focuses on the tools of daily life,” I said.

Why did I care?  In my daily life, I avoided tools and gadgets, except for pencils, tack hammers, and corkscrews. I did not even own a mobile phone.  My attempt at on-line banking was a fiasco, despite the fact that everyone continued to tell me how easy it all was.  I had a television, but I never turned it on.

An artful magician, the saleslady whipped out another guidebook and thumbed to a section entitled, “Daily Life in Ancient Egypt.” Only pictures of the murals from the tombs of the ancient Egyptians, carrying cone-shaped bread. No photographs of the artifacts in Room  34.  Just what was I looking for if I did not want photographs of Tutankamen’s gold mask?

She had showed me every guidebook on the Museum. She smiled good-naturedly and said, “Malish.”

I was more upset than she was that I had not bought the glossy catalog. Besides, another hunter would probably buy the expensive guidebook for a hundred and twenty pounds.

At the time, I was writing an article about the connection between art and artifact in Syria and I had thought a visit to the Egyptian Museum might help clarify something about historical objects. It had not; instead, I had made a tangled, laborious list as long as the Cairo phonebook, of every single object in the room.  I was seeing Hisham, a Egyptian composer educated at Juilliard, who spoke in rather grand terms about his music, especially his notation sheets, which he would “leave behind, objects for posterity.”   Since he was so busy composing masterpieces during the night and sleeping during the day, he had little time for me. Divorced twice, (which should have been an omen), he also lived with his elderly parents, who were in their eighties. In the beginning of our relationship, I had thought a romance with an artist, would be ideal since he would not suffocate me. The wish was granted: he was absent from my daily life and reneged often on our plans. Unfortunately, his ponderous sense of destiny rubbed off on me.  I scribbled  down quotes in my notebook, like: “It is common enough that immediately after writers die their reputations plummet into ferocious eclipse: all at once, and unaccountably, a former zealous constituency will stop reading and teaching and talking about books that only a short while before were objects of excitement and gossip. It is as if for writers vengeful mortality erases  not only the woman or the man but the page, the paragraph, the sentence–pages, paragraphs, and sentences honed and furbished in order to spite mortality. Writers, major or minor, may covet fame, but what they really work for is that transient little daily illusion–phrase by phrase, comma after comma–of the stay against erasure.” –Cynthia Ozick.

Did I feel erased by Hisham?  Or maybe I felt sorry for myself because my unpublished novel, the one I had suffered so much to write, seemed erased. But suppose my novel were published and was touted by Oprah Winfrey, no one could guarantee that it would remain an “object of excitement and gossip.”  Finally, why had I allowed reminders by other professors about my modest rank as “Writing Teacher” bother me? Let’s be practical.  Did I still want to be delivering pizzas for Dominoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to support my writing? Well, no.  Of course, like the next unpublished novelist, I coveted fame and fortune–my book in the front window of Barnes and Noble, juicy advances, an agent, accolades from the New York Times Book Review–none of which had happened.  No matter how difficult and lonely, I told myself, I must soldier on for: “that transient little daily illusion–phrase by phrase, comma after comma of the stay against erasure…” Like a good Christian soldier,  I was marching on to war.


All this talk of mortality had erased the fact that creating and making things was fun.

Even though I dreamed of Hisham coming with me, I surged ahead on an expedition to Room 34. He was composing draconian music for a Pakistani lady, who had made a video of herself,  strolling around New York City, fully veiled in black. Hisham told me the video was a post 9/11project, which “promised to be important.” And besides, as he explained, he had been to the museum many times; he was not interested in seeing those historical objects again. “Maybe you would see something different. See things in a new way,” I said. He did not soften, not even a tad. Our relationship had the illusion of compatibility–we did nothing together, except eat the occasional meal or go to concerts, which were of professional interest to Hisham.

Outside the main hall next to Room 34, a covey of Japanese tourists, all wearing identical orange sun hats, listened to their Egyptian tour guide. He shined a slender flashlight at Tut’s throne chair, studded with jewels. The Japanese chirped.  I was blasé about jewels, and slipped past: a seeker of the mundane.

At the entrance of Room 34,  I copied down the unglamorous listing of the collection for “Tools, Implements and Weapons” into my notebook.  No mention of the other artifacts that are not weapons or tools in this ungrammatical description, but they are also housed in this room. The only jazzy detail is the added footnote, typed unevenly–King Tutankamen’s shield was covered with cheetah skin. Great detail, I thought. How could I work it into an essay?

I headed for the musical objects.   There is a collection of clappers, lutes of wood and leather with gut string, castanets, parchments for tambourines, flutes of reed, a harp and a barrel-shaped drum.  Nets, hooks, and harpoons have been placed next to spinning and weaving objects. Frayed bits of linen and thread are followed by light. Bowls, containing linen wicks, were used for lamps. The light flickered and cast softer shadows than electric light bulbs, but also could easily burn your house down.  Light illuminates, like the distance of time. Hisham was charming and talented, but also selfish. He often told me his music was “the most important thing in his life.” His art would take precedence over personal relationships.  He did not say exactly, but he meant: a personal relationship would detract from his quest for the “stay against erasure.”

There is no system. No grand plan in Room 34.  The curator probably delegated this unpromising room to his underlings, who couldn’t care less about daily artifacts.  Why are the cosmetic spoons next to the boomerangs? What does mixing kohl eye makeup have to do with killing birds?

A lone case near the mirrors contains a few random items: a shroud from  a mummy, a basket of toilet articles, a wooden comb, thread and needles with yarn. Room 34 is like a garage sale in Tuscaloosa, Alabama–plenty of bric-a-brac.

Grouping mirrors together was not hard.

Was an artist who gazed in the pond too long, like Narcissus? So obsessed with himself that he did not see anyone else.  And yet without the self, how could beautiful objects be created?

In the bedroom in Hisham’s flat (where he did not live), the ceiling is a patchwork of jagged mirror. I laughed. “Why did you do that? It could be dangerous. Especially if the glass falls on you when you are asleep.”

Obliviousness and lack of self-awareness was as dangerous as narcissism.

“The carpenter thought I was crazy,” he said.

The mirrored bedroom was a sexual cliché.  We never spent the night there. But if we had, he might have gazed more at his own reflection in the ceiling, rather than at me.

Those ancient mirrors in Room 34 would not catch the face of anyone in this present time. They can no longer be used.  The modern mirror is not fashioned from glass and wood, but plastic, chips and wires. Mobile phones can catch faces, time, voices and messages. Mobile phones diminished the people you were present with; at the same time, you did not have to be present with the people you were talking to on the telephone, who were somewhere else.   The mobile phone played tricks with time and space, absence and presence.

Three years have passed since first my visit to Room 34. Hisham is no longer a presence in my life.  I have a new friend, Nikos, a Greek-American economist from Salt Lake City who specializes in Marx or “political economy.” He collects the hides of exotic animals from obscure locations and third-world countries.  I am surprised by the friendship. I do not know if he will continue to be present in my life over time. Scripting your own future can spoil the moment. For now, he makes me laugh and he has an adventurous spirit. He doesn’t drone on about his own historical importance or his status at the university or the objects he will leave behind. Simple objects and pleasures delight him. He was thrilled by the desk-top water pipe, shisha that I gave him–another male teacher, had left it behind at the office a few years ago.  He loves to sit on the simple roof-top balcony of the two-star hotel, the Garden City Palace, which he has christened  “our neighborhood dive.” Desperate to escape the tasteless, bland cauliflower casserole my maid had made for me, I had taken him there one night–a cheap restaurant nearby–and he had fallen in love with the kofta, the obliging waiters and the cluttered view of mustard-colored nine-story buildings.

On Niko’s screensaver, are square after square of a photograph of him with a gargantuan bison from the Yukon. He is almost eclipsed by the animal, even though he is in front. The squares are a mirror, but this time it is not narcissism, but a reflection of his obsession with hunting. Unlike Hisham, his concern for other people is genuine.

“Why the attraction to hunting?”  I asked him one day, when he was showing me a picture of himself with a dead baboon from Zimbabwe.

“What I love is the social exchange and camaraderie involved in the hunt. Being outdoors. Killing the animal is an anti-climax. You have to lug the animal which weighs a ton down the hill and skin it.”

In 2004 hunting is a hobby; once hunting was a necessity for survival.

The only objects which have  been categorized in Room 34 are the “Tools, Implements and Weapons.” Ancient Egyptians shaped the hardest rocks with copper and flint. Carpenters’ tools such as chisels, mallets, double-handled sledge hammers, adzes, axes, saws, bow-drills are displayed.  There are also many forms of knives, razors, fish-hooks and harpoons. Last are the weapons  which inflict bodily harm: bows and arrows and short swords. But as everyone knows, even a small tool can be used as a weapon to inflict profound harm to others, even a paper cutter.  A human being is so delicate, that any sharp household object can wound, maim and kill. Last spring in Cairo, a Swiss photographer named Veronique Audergon, was stabbed repeatedly with a knife or screwdriver and strangled with a computer cable by her Egyptian lover. Ironically, Veronique had survived cancer and had made an artifact of this experience, a series of photographs of herself in radiation therapy, called “56 Radio Days.” Even stranger still, once the murderer had confessed, the police videotaped him re-enacting the crime at her apartment.

Games and toys are next to weapons. Odd, but probably not calculated that weapons are next to fun. Here, is a collection of playing dice, made from faience, bone, and wood. Rows and rows of dice–uneven, big, small, medium, thimble-sized. Roll the dice. Win/Lose. Acceptance/Rejection. Life/Death.  The dice remind me of the risk involved, even in daily life. Last year a young American high-school girl lost both her  legs, crossing the road next to the Nile. The driver did not stop. Her boyfriend carried her across the street to the hospital, but she had already lost too much blood.

Relationships  which went awry, could crush. Perhaps less crushing than losing both your legs, although it never felt that way at the time.

Many editors and publishers threw your work in the trash and snubbed you. Maybe I should venture out into the world with a rhino skin, draped over myself for protection.  Last summer, a well-known American publisher brushed me off at a literary cocktail party in St. Petersburg, Russia. We were both reaching for salmon on a cracker and I thought this was my chance to do some networking. “Nice talk. You were funny. Would you be interested in manuscripts on the Middle East?” I said, trying to be casual. He became reptilian.  “We don’t publish books on the Middle East,” he said, moving past me to talk to someone more important. I almost burst into tears. Later that night, he got so drunk on Russian Standard Vodka that he collapsed in the street. Pickpockets moved in for the kill. He was lucky that one writer out with him, whom he had no intention of helping, threw herself over him.

In the same case as the dice are three crude-looking dolls, constructed from paddles. Two heads are faceless; one is adorned with tatty, thread hair; the other has mud hair. The third is missing a head. They are not toys, but talismans, protection against infertility, the serious element of sex.  Were women in ancient Egypt who were infertile, discarded by men?  One day before I was leaving my building to play tennis, I had a discussion with the Egyptian doormen, who are both in their late twenties, engaged to be married. Ismail explained to me that the Quran allowed a man to divorce his wife if she did not “bring a child.” I explained that I was familiar with the teaching of the Quran and the idea. What about me, he asked, when would I marry? By Egyptian male standards or even American, I would not be considered reproductively useful at forty-three. The child beyond, not the presence and individuality of the woman was what was counted. The discussion depressed me.  I wished them well in their marriages and headed for tennis.

On the bureau in front of my bed, there are some of my grandmother’s objects, which remind me of her presence. She died my first year of graduate school at the University of Alabama, thirteen years ago.  I have a pair of oval-looking earrings, with mother-of-pearl in the center, which look like something Kate Winslet might have worn in the movie, Titanic. A goofy, born-again jeweler in Tuscaloosa named “The Jewelry Doctor” had drilled a tiny hole in the back of the earrings and attached a latch in the center so that I could wear them. Before they had clips on the back. He turned out to be an unreliable character–he absconded with a pair of opal earrings and a ring,  that my other grandmother had given me.

The Kate Winslet earrings belonged to my grandmother’s aunt, Aunt Nancy, who had graduated from the Woman’s College in Greensboro, North Carolina around 1900. At a time when my father observed, that not many women were educated.  Grandmother’s mother, Kate Duffy Bell died when she was a small child and she  was raised by Aunt Nancy.  She was long dead when I came along. But from the photographs she appeared to be big-boned woman with a stern face, up to the task of raising Grandmother Margaret, who was bold and feisty, even as a child.

I brought her a perfume bottle from Istanbul, carved out of bone, decorated in black ink–a courtly oriental scene of visitors to the palace during Ottoman times. Now, I have the gift, although it is purely decorative. I do not use it for perfume.

I also inherited an elegant cameo ring from my grandmother.  My aunt asked for the cameo ring for her step-daughter: she was interested because it was a valuable antique. But my mother told my aunt, my father’s brother’s wife, that I would have the cameo. “You should have the ring. You were a real presence in her daily life,” my mother said. In the last few years, she was too frail to carry in even a gallon of milk. If I were home, I would drive her around town on simple errands and take in her groceries.

Other household objects that I have inherited from her: a walnut bed made by slaves during the Civil War, a hutch, a rocking chair and a colorful collection of salt and pepper shakers.

After my grandmother died, my mother and father went over to her house on Saturdays to clean out the hundreds of boxes, that had accumulated over the years in her attic. “We’ll go on rainy days,” my father announced. Rainy days are few in South Texas so this took over a year. There was a good deal of junk in those boxes (thousands of rubber bands and empty jelly jars), but my father suspected, there might be some interesting debris, too. When she was alive, my Grandmother Margaret and my father did not always get along: she was frank and spoke her mind,  without apology. However, my father was touched by some of the memorabilia he found; for example, Grandmother Margaret had kept all of his report cards since the first grade. There are interesting historical objects, too from Grandmother’s Margaret’s North Carolinian background. Some Confederate cash. And even better than the cash, is a newspaper article with this headline: New Bern Man, One of the Few Survivors of Lee’s Army, One of First to Enlist. Grandfather Duffy, Grandmother Margaret’s grandfather, was a salty old bird, who fought in Antietam, Fredericksburg, siege of Petersburg, Seven Days Around Richmond, Seven Pines Drury’s Bluff and Plymouth. Taken prisoner of war, Duffy was imprisoned in the old Capitol building and then moved to the officer’s prison on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. He refused to take the amnesty oath so he remained in prison until July 1, three months after the Civil War ended.

Periodically, I am reminded of the furniture I inherited from my grandmother: it is stored in a tiny space at Bama Mini-Storage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. By the time I return to the United States, the slave bed may have disintegrated into dust. I pay forty dollars a month to store my objects. From afar, Merle or Josie from Bama Mini-Storage send me periodic reminders to pay for my storage unit.

Expatriates often leave household objects behind.  A quirky man named Marty, with giant bug-like glasses, in our building left Cairo this fall. He had been here for four years, but I had never met him until a month ago.   He used to teach economics at the American University in Cairo. He had gotten a contract to work for AID, but that had ended. His wife had returned to the U.S. He did not have a job in the United States and seemed to be at a loose end.

He sold me his answering machine for ten U.S. dollars.  Two hundred Egyptian  pounds (thirty-three U.S) for the vacuum cleaner, which has now replaced the one, held together with duct tape. Electrical appliances from Egypt cannot be used without a converter in the United States. No expatriates bother to lug them back in their suitcases;  they are useless at home.

He kept trying to sell me his toaster before he left.  Every night he appeared at my door with a lower price for the toaster. “Say, how about seven dollars?”

“I don’t eat much bread,” I said.

In the end, he gave me the toaster. “What am I going to do with the toaster?”

The night before his departure, he rang my doorbell with a shoebox full of odds and ends.  Two flyswatters/ a pie cutter?/ a corkscrew. A few coffee mugs with pictures of cows, dressed in Santa outfits on them. (I gave them to Nikos.) A full packet of Café Greco/French Roast coffee. (I kept for myself.)

Would a blue plastic fly swatter under glass inspire wonder and awe from a museum-goer someday?  Hard to imagine. Would someone squeal with delight over a few kitsch mugs with pictures of cows, dressed as Santa Claus? Would corkscrews and pie-cutters be obsolete? No telling.

In Room 34, the damaged remains of daily life, which were not originally created for artistic use (except for the musical instruments), have been transformed into still life.

Rightly, last case next to the  door in Room 34 are the locks: long pieces of wood to bar doors.  Don’t take objects that are not yours. Or, this space is not yours. There is a secret here.  As Joseph Brodsky observes in his essay, “Homage to Marcus Aurelius,”: “The most definitive feature of antiquity is our absence. The more available its debris and the longer you stare at it, the more you are denied entry.”

In the future, someone will find the daily objects from our lives. Perhaps the simplest objects will seem strange.  Because my Adidas watch broke and I have not gotten around to buying another,  I am wearing a green watch, with Crusty the Clown from the Simpson show on the face. A friend gave it to me as a joke at a dinner party. When you press the button on the side, the voice says, “Hey kids, it’s story time.”

In the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones says: “Bury your watch in the sand. In a thousand years someone will uncover it. It will be priceless.”

Could be.

But none of us will be around to see the delight on the faces of those, who find the Crusty the Clown watch in the sand.